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EARTHWATCH

Caring for Old Items Helps Save Resources : More people are realizing that it pays to make repairs rather than toss things out and buy new.

August 03, 1995|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Skip Taylor is a Ventura appliance repairman and an environmentalist--day in and day out. How, you might ask, could restoring fridges and washers have anything to do with restoring the planet?

"I consider myself a conservative. I want to conserve clean air and clean water," he said, "and regular maintenance makes these machines conserve energy, which means less smog."

He isn't alone in seeing the connection between maintaining things and maintaining the planet. This summer, the buzz in the environmental magazine has been: "Whatever became of fixing things?" and other articles on the "noble tradition" of the fix-it man.

That's what got Earthwatch thinking about the topic. The last time we looked into it, we discovered that county residents annually throw away enough refrigerators to fill the parking spaces on Main Street in Ventura from one end to the other--both sides.

A major cause of breakdowns of these appliances, Taylor said, is letting years slide by without having condensers cleaned. "The dirtier they get, the more electricity gets used," he said.

By repairing and regularly maintaining, rather than discarding manufactured goods, we obviate the need to dig new minerals, cut new trees, wrap new packages and drive new delivery routes. This also saves 75% of the "embodied energy"--electricity, coal, oil--that was used to make a thing in the first place.

But, according to this month's Resource Recycling Magazine, our country generates almost twice the amount of discards per capita than other developed countries. Meanwhile, the report added, "Other countries have 60% to 80% recovery and utilization rates."

OK, it's a cultural thing in this country. We're used to throwing away everything from airplanes to zippers--but repairing them would be more expensive than buying new, right?

Well, Earthwatch isn't going to argue that buying a cheap new VCR instead of fixing the old, expensive one isn't an attractive choice. But have you noticed that the cheaper stuff doesn't tend to last as long? So you end up shelling out the money you thought you saved--either to buy new, repair the junky machine or go back and fix the older model.

Taylor, who has been in the business more than a decade, offers standard advice for curing such headaches: "If you can't afford replacements or major repair bills, buy a really good machine in the first place--and maintain it."

This, of course, is the siren song of a tradesman who earns his living by contracting to make regular maintenance calls.

But it is an idea that local consumers have evidently gotten wise to. An informal survey of county-based repair and maintenance shops revealed that, largely because of the economy, more people are holding on to their microwaves, fridges, washers--even their antique clocks--longer than they used to, and they are keeping them in good repair.

For teen-agers, ever the harbingers of social conscience, dressing in used clothing is in vogue. Further up on the financial scale, people are fixing up their old houses rather than buying new.

Nationwide, over three quarters of building permits issued to members of the American Institute of Architects are for "adaptive reuse" of existing structures rather than new construction, according to a recent report from the AIA. And there's a new book out, "Choose to Reuse" by David Goldbeck, which promotes this consciousness and gives lots of practical tips on "making worn-out products new again."

Details

* FYI: "Choose to Reuse" by David Goldbeck, $15.95 (Ceres Press) is available at local chain bookstores. The book offers planet-saving and money-saving tips on "making worn-out products new again."

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